Last night was calm enough to cook something fun, so we had a dinner extravaganza of Pasta Carbonara, and oh it was good. We also downloaded information (a "Weathergram") that confirmed what we've suspected, and said if these conditions persist another 2 weeks they're going to officially call it an El Nino transition.
It's been interesting to observe how deeply reflections on various subjects can go out here with no distractions. I think often about friends and family members, turning fond thoughts and feelings over to see what each facet reveals. Jim's family has the coolest tradition, of getting together every Christmas at one another's homes. Now you may not think this is unusual, but that entire family has been gathering in an unbroken line of Christmases for about 80 years. Jim's Aunt Gail attended her first one as an infant 75 years ago, and has never missed a one. Not everyone makes it to each Christmas, of course, but usually a quorum of family members treks to Michigan every year. I enjoyed being with them a couple years ago, and one of the most hilarious memories was playing Kick the Can late at night, hiding behind a tree in snow with Jim's cousin Sandee, like a couple of giggling commandos.
Friends can be like family, too. This often happens in far-off places like Alaska, where people form friendships in that isolation, that can be as strong as family ties. Vern Allen is one of my dearest friends, and a darned good sailor, too. The first time we met, his boat was in my new slip in Seward, Alaska, and he jumped in his car to drive nearly 3 hours down to the marina to move it. I don't know who felt worse--me for arriving early and causing the marina to call him (I had offered to take an empty berth but they called anyway) or Vern, aghast and apologetic for something he'd normally never do.
A retired pilot and helicopter/fixed wing mechanic who could fix anything, he spent most of his time on a venerable old Columbia 35 named Flapdoodle, and made it a true sailor's haven. Even his ditty bag had provenance--it had been around Cape Horn on a square rigger! I haven't seen him in several years, but we keep in touch. Vern was a great mentor and encourager, standing by quietly as I tried to make some daunting (to me) mechanical repair on my previous Dana 24, Minstrel. I'd get mad and he'd say, come on, you know how to do that. Three hours later as I rested below, there'd be a knock on the hull and the call, "Dinner in 5 minutes." He never asked, just assumed I'd be hungry and in need of some good food, so dinner was mostly on Vern's boat. The man's a Tex-Mex genius, and he never runs out of beer.
During the week while I was at work he'd watch my boat, though I never asked him to. Sometimes people who'd be standing on the finger pier next to Minstrel admiring her would feel a pair of eyes on them, and there'd be Vern, giving them the stinkeye if they got too close. One stormy winter day (in Alaska, 100 mph wind storms are not unusual) I talked to Vern on the phone. "We got 16 foot seas outside the breakwater and 9 footers in the marina entrance," he said, "I had to take a Dramamine, even tied up at the dock!"
I retired early from work, in summer 2006 (before I met Jim), because it was time to go sailing. Vern was a huge help in the planning for crossing the Gulf of Alaska from Seward to Elfin Cove, near Glacier Bay. We spent many hours discussing route, weather and strategy, and he persuaded me to take the offshore route because it was safest. "Please don't go the coastal route," he said, "It's a five hundred-mile lee shore with a seven thousand mile fetch." I knew he was right. But I had hit 2 gales crossing the Gulf on Minstrel several years previously, and did not want to repeat the experience. With that piece of ocean if you're eastbound, you wait for gale winds to shift to the northeast as they begin to veer, and jump out into it, hoping you can ride the westerlies before the next gale about 4 days later. I chose the offshore route.
Vern and I separately plotted the route and compared waypoints. We developed a specific set of sailing directions that would mitigate the need to think up solutions enroute. We double-checked everything, and discovered a half-mile error on the chart near Cape Spencer, near a magnetic anomaly. We also discovered significant differences between locations in aeronautical charts and nautical charts, which was a surprise because these used, if I recall correctly, the same datum. It's mighty good to know in advance that your landfall's not where the chart says it is.
Vern offered to crew, but by then I had lined up someone. The crossing was uneventful, and we made it to Elfin Cove between gales. I called Vern right away and he was so proud of me. We both jumped for joy. Later, he said he'd wished he'd offered to crew earlier, because that's one passage he wanted to make before swallowing the anchor. So, a couple of years later, when his son moved Vern and his wife Marilyn from their apartment in Anchorage to be nearer him in Haines (north of Juneau), the son crewed for him as they sailed Flapdoodle across the Gulf of Alaska on a similar route to mine. Mind you, this was 8 months after Vern's triple bypass surgery and two strokes. I think a lot of us who knew Vern thought he was finished, but he fooled us all. He sailed into a 40-knot gale with 19-foot seas, and was thrown across the cabin as the boat fell off a huge wave. He nearly broke his arm but didn't, and they both figured the boat had a 50-50 chance of sinking.
And then, he told me later, the most remarkable thought occurred to him: I'm having the time of my life out here, and I've never felt more alive.
Flapdoodle has since been sold and Vern is wheelchair-bound now, but from our little ship heading south in the middle of an ocean, with my eyes looking north, Vern Allen, I salute you. You sail with us in spirit.